Pakistan is not a democracy. Pakistan has never been a democracy. Should Pakistan adopt the electoral trappings of democracy in the near-term, that would not make Pakistan an authentic liberal democracy. Free and fair elections just might dissolve Pakistan into chaos, and/or begin a process of evolution toward Islamist domination. Elections or not, if Pakistan achieves stability any time soon, it will not be due to democracy. Pakistani stability in the near-term can only be the result of a precarious balance between political factions that are largely illiberal and undemocratic. Elections, at best, will throw a veil over a complex and fragile behind-the-scenes political deal. Pakistan’s 1970 election — the freest and fairest in the nation’s history — resulted in civil war, war with India, and the partition of the country into Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Led by a naive media, the United States and Europe are being sold a bill of goods. We hear a lot about a “genuine return to democracy,” “the restoration of full democracy,” or the “restoration of the constitution.” All of this will supposedly follow an end to the emergency and the advent of free and fair elections. This is nonsense. Democracy and the constitution cannot be restored in Pakistan because, in any serious sense, neither democracy nor constitutional rule has ever existed there.
The army has been openly in power for about half of Pakistan’s history — and in control behind the scenes for most of the rest. Pakistan’s most democratic leader was the nation’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Yet in practice, even Jinnah insisted on total control, leaving an autocratic legacy to successors who cared far less than he for democracy. In all of Pakistan’s history, there has never been a peaceful transfer of power between two elected governments. Every elected Pakistani government has been deposed or summarily dismissed. Most elections have been manipulated by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Only Zulfikar Ali Bhutto completed an elected term in office, and he was subsequently hanged after a military coup. From independence day to the present, Pakistan political trajectory has been one long evolution away from the democratic ideals of its founding.
In near-willful ignorance of this history, America is opening itself up to manipulation by savvy Pakistanis, and setting this country up for disappointment and failure. Instead of calmly confronting the exceedingly difficult options we face in this troubled land, we are allowing ourselves to be misled by naive hopes for the “restoration” of a democracy that never existed.
Consider “Digging in Deeper in Pakistan,” a New York Times editorial that nicely summarizes the implicit consensus behind mainstream media reporting on Pakistan’s emergency. The Times chastises the Bush administration for retaining any connection whatever with General Musharraf. In place of the administration’s attempt to put together a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf, the Times wants us to encourage Bhutto to join with her longtime rival, Nawaz Sharif, in a “civilian democratic front.” That would cut Musharraf and the army out of power altogether. President Bush “must make it clear once and for all that Washington is firmly on the side of democracy,” says the Times. Remarkably, the Times is willing to hold American efforts to recruit tribal allies in Pakistan’s Islamist northwest hostage to greater democracy.
I’d revert to jokes about the Times turning neocon, but that’s not quite what’s happening here. (See “More Armed Brothers.”) For all the Democrats’ attacks on the naivete of the president’s democratization policy, a powerful stream within the Democratic party would take the administration’s democratization strategy a giant step further, in effect trying to buy off Islamists by allowing them into the political process. Of course neither the Islamists nor the process in question would be authentic liberal democracy. But that won’t stop many Dems from using offers of electoral participation as a substitute for standing up to the Islamists. The New York Times is foreshadowing such a shift already.
Democracy might be a solution to Pakistan’s problems if there were anything like an authentically liberal democratic tradition available to support. Unfortunately, the media’s focus on protesting lawyers notwithstanding, there is no such tradition in sight. Authentic liberal democracy may be a fine long-term goal for Pakistan to work toward, but holding the war on terror hostage to the phantasm of near-term democracy is very bad policy indeed.